Visual neurons in the brain still a mystery, study reveals they are “much more complicated”

A recent study of almost 60,000 neurons in a mouse’s visual system revealed that how the brain processes visual information is still unclear. In fact, researchers discovered that less than 10% of neurons behaved the way scientists had previously thought, reported SciTechDaily.

Researchers from the Allen Institute unveiled their study’s surprising findings in the journal Nature Neuroscience in December 2019. Using new technology and new procedures, The Allen Brain Observatory allowed scientists to study more neurons at one time, even those that offered subtle responses.

“We thought that there are simple principles according to which these neurons process visual information, and those principles are in all the textbooks,” said Christof Koch, Ph.D., Chief Scientist and President of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, a division of the Allen Institute, and co-senior author on the study along with R. Clay Reid, M.D., Ph.D., Senior Investigator at the Allen Institute for Brain Science. “But now that we can survey tens of thousands of cells at once, we get a more subtle — and much more complicated — picture.”

The result: What the scientists thought they knew about how the brain processed visual information was much more complex. Only 10% of the 60,000 neurons responded as anticipated. About two-thirds showed reliable responses and one third didn’t light up reliably, making it unclear to the scientists what these neurons are doing.

“It’s not that the previous studies were all a big mistake, it’s just that those cells turn out to be a very small fraction of all neurons in the cortex,” said Saskia de Vries, Ph.D., an Assistant Investigator at the Allen Institute for Brain Science who led the study along with Jérôme Lecoq, Ph.D., and Michael Buice, Ph.D., to SciTechDaily. “It turns out that the mouse visual cortex is much more complex and richer than we previously thought, which underscores the value of doing this type of survey.”

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